Squally weather in St Austell Bay

'Under the cabin lamp' H. Alker Tripp
‘Under the cabin lamp’ H. Alker Tripp

“We all have our own stories and topics,” says the author, “and here are a few of mine.” They carry with them the smell of salt water and the ocean wind, these tales of cruising and racing and of stormy passages and peaceful havens.

In this extract from ‘Under the cabin lamp’ by H. Alker Tripp we hear about a squally passage from Gribben Head across St Austell Bay to Falmouth. The extract is published on ‘Sailing by’ with permission from the publisher, Lodestar Books.

We were pegging to windward, and the wind was a fine full-sail breeze. The yacht was footing it merrily; the seas, though big, were even, and she was sailing so dry that we had no need of oilskins. We had left Fowey, and the sun shone on Gribbin Head. The glass had been falling a little and the fine weather was too good to last. The low sky was now full of ugly cloud-heads; but these, we thought, meant thunder only and no serious disturbance.

Off Gribbin Head is the Cannis Rock, about a quarter of a mile offshore. It covers at three-quarters flood and is marked by a red iron pole beacon. We could not see a vestige of the rock itself, but we could see the waves rear themselves as they curled and foamed, and could hear the noise of them. The seas are apt to hit this line of coast pretty strongly; the line of a south-westerly wind is straight from the Lizard. As we brought Gribbin Head abeam we began to open St. Austell Bay. The day was not improving; obviously, by the look of the clouds, there was heavy rain away to seaward, and rain was falling in a dark and heavy blur over the land also. With us, the sunshine was still brilliant, and it only served to make the skies both to windward and lee look more forbidding. “Thunder somewhere, I suppose,” I said, “or we shouldn’t have the clouds working along in two directions like that. We’d better have our oilskins handy, or even get into them now, even in this merry sunshine.”

That windward squall was travelling fast. If there were a real burst of wind with it we should have to heave-to and reef at once.

We had scudded along finely on port tack, and we were now looking into St. Austell Bay. The great heaps of waste from the china clay quarries looked like the pyramids of Egypt – big monuments fringed and circled with cloud. The whole impression was rather wonderful. It was a weird picture.

Then the squall hit us. The wind had caught us aback, and we thus found ourselves hove-to, while the rain smote us like fun. It poured in torrents, and the wind whistled, with a vicious note in it. “We shall have to reef,” I shouted, “but we’ll let this spasm go by. She’ll be all right if we keep her hove-to and drop the peak if necessary.” Then, after a few minutes of whistling gusts, the wind settled back to the old quarter, still blowing from the south-west, but harder. Then suddenly the wind had gone. “Rotten this,” my shipmate said, as he began to peel off his oilskins, for the rain by this time was negligible. “Of all the things I loathe at sea I hate this most – this wallowing helpless with a boom banging and tearing at its sheet, and the ship rolling her guts out, scuppers under. And nothing to do.”

“Except to dodge the boom,” I suggested, and we grinned. We had plenty of time to look at this identical coastline. It simply stayed there. “No fun, no fun,” my companion was saying. “D’you think it’ll breeze up soon?” “I have no idea,” I admitted. “It’s a good job we’re well off shore,” I yawned. “More rain,” my companion sang out, scrambling aft to seize his oilskin, and sure enough the rain came again, another deluge. It fairly smoked over the water. It streamed on the decks. It poured from our oilskins in solid runlets. Extinguished under our sou’westers we hunched our shoulders and waited for it to finish. It couldn’t keep going for long at this pitch.

“Wind.” Before the rain was fairly over the wind was upon us. It had freshened once more from the south-south-west, and we kept her sailing close-hauled, and sailing fine also, for fear of heavier gusts.

“This is no fun,” I said, and I expect I sounded very querulous, for there is nothing worse than the sense of “waiting for It.” And then the breeze did come, not in a sharp gust, but a healthy little breeze, gradually hardening. The sky was lighter and the squall was passing. With a sense of relief we settled down to it, driving merrily forward once more. First rate.

But the breeze was too good to last. It fell away once more, and came again in cats’ paws. Then, at long last, the breeze really hardened, and we pulled down a second reef, the yacht pitching heavily over the tops of great green seas while we tied up the reef points. But, the squalls seemed to be over. The sky was brighter; and the yacht, snugged down like this, rode the seas with a beautiful gameness and plugged away to windward with very little fuss. In the late afternoon we made Falmouth, and the lights of the town twinkled.

‘Under the cabin lamp’ from Lodestar Books